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Experts Aren't Dead

Staff Blogger Ben Rerden Head of Science – Senior School

A scientist is defined as someone who has expert knowledge in one or more of the natural or physical sciences. I have always loved science and been fascinated by scientists. Talking to someone with such deep expert knowledge is exciting.

Their ability to distil ideas and understand complex processes is the result of years of study and is something to celebrate and respect. This is also true of all experts, expert scientists, expert lawyers, expert engineers, expert writers, expert plumbers, expert doctors.

The late 20th century brought with it what is often called the age of information. This descriptor is probably more appropriate now than ever before. The plethora of information available to us is astounding; a few swipes and clicks and any number of facts are available to us through a device smaller than the average paperback book.

Growing up, I always loved learning. I was happiest when challenged, focusing my attention to solve a problem, master a new skill or understand a new concept. While I read widely, soaking up new information, it was listening to others that I truly enjoyed. The social aspect of learning from those around me and the speed at which I could gain new information was exhilarating. My innate appreciation of expertise inspired me to pursue conversations with anyone I thought knew more than I did – mostly everybody.

It may seem that growing up in the age of information I would feel ebullient, so much information at my fingertips. Unfortunately, I more recently found myself somewhere between melancholy and frustration, lamenting that while the age of information seemed to allow me access to the ancient library of Alexandria, it also heralded the death of the expert.

As the internet has become ubiquitous and information has become readily available to any and all, the line between novice and expert appears to have blurred. Anyone with an opinion is able to find somewhere to share their voice on a platform that is not peer reviewed, not fact checked and not necessarily helpful or positive. This provides a significant challenge for our young people who are yet to develop and refine their critical reasoning skills and requisite background knowledge to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction.

A quick google search of a once conclusive topic now delivers a multitude of responses and ‘alternative facts’. Google readily provides a ‘preview’ answer which while backed by an impressive algorithm, is attempting to match search terms with similar responses and not necessarily ranking results based on factual accuracy or credibility. Less than savoury characters lurking in the dark depths of the internet are constantly trying to confuse, confound and scam our young men, starting early to sow the seeds of doubt and deceit. This makes our job as educators harder, but also undermines our very society and the foundations of common understanding that it rests upon. Expertise has historically been the way we can collectively trust information and agree upon things which have important impacts on our lives.

In his book ‘The Death of Expertise’, Tom Nichols examines the relationship between experts and the wider community. While his book focuses on the US, it highlights a number of alarming trends with parallels here in Australia. In 2017 he said “historically, people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble and distress”.

#IMHO In My Humble Opinion

The problem with thinking you know more than the experts

This clearly seems to be the case in 2020. In Australia we rang in the new year with the worst bushfire season on record and followed quickly with a global pandemic that seems to be determined to remind us that 2020 is not going to give us an opportunity for rest and relaxation. It isn’t a stretch to consider this year one of the most troubled and distressed in recent memory. The silver lining for me has been our sudden shift back towards valuing experts and expert opinion.

Only last year, comprehensive media coverage meant giving equal airtime to both sides of any debate. Even fields with a clear scientific consensus such as vaccination, climate change, or even whether the Earth really is round seemed to be portrayed through what the media called ‘balanced reporting’. Compare this to the recent coverage of the bushfires and COVID-19, with Australian discourse, media coverage and even policy direction being thankfully informed by a variety of true experts. It has been refreshing to hear the clear messages in the media, led by the likes of Shane Fitzsimmons, Dr Brendan Murphy, Dr Norman Swan, Professor Paul Kelly, or the Chief Medical Officers of each of the states and territories.

National Science Week recently passed, an opportunity to celebrate science and the expertise of the scientists that practice it. It made me think about the importance of studying science and the benefits gained by the broader community. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding about the universe, in my opinion, is both noble and vital. Pushing the boundaries of human knowledge allows us as a society to develop technological advancements that improve the quality of all aspects of our lives. These grand developments are why it is important that students strive to develop their own expertise throughout their lives so they can contribute positively to society and in term improve their own lives, but they are not the only reason why it is imperative that school age students study science.

As a science educator, I strive to ensure all students leave Ambrose Treacy College with a basic understanding of science. This will allow them to succeed in a world filled with hoaxes, scams, conspiracy theories, and people trying to trick them for personal gain. A basic understanding of science coupled with 21st century reasoning and analytical skills will help them to identify expertise, both in themselves and in others. They can then employ their knowledge and reasoning to discern between a con artist, a fool, and an expert, and to trust the right one.

To continue the conversation, CLICK HERE to email Ben.

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